Interior of San Vitale, 526-547 CE, Ravenna, Italy, Photo by sjmcdonoughvia Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 ShareAlike License. 2

San Vitale in Ravenna: Justinian’s Little Gem

San Vitale is one of the first examples of Byzantine art and architecture in Western civilization.

In the 6th century, under the reign of Justinian, Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) became the political and religious center of the Christian Byzantine Empire and its satellite capital in the West was the conquered city of Ravenna in Italy, where Justinian built San Vitale.

The fact that the building is octagonal is very Latin (or Western), but everything else in the decoration and design that is intended to deny mass and create a celestial realm on earth comes directly from the East.

It was popular in the East to build religious buildings that have domed spaces with semicircular niches like the ones in San Vitale; these are essential elements of the other great monument from Justinian’s reign in Constantinople – Hagia Sophia.

Every surface of the interior is covered with decorations that are emphatically two-dimensional so that they deny space, thus making the interior more heavenly.  Swirling tiles cover the floor, patterned marble is on the lower portion of the walls, and the majority of the walls and dome above are sheathed in gold and glass tiles, or tesserae, arranged in symbols, patterns and pictures of Biblical figures and the Emperor and Empress themselves.

San Vitale is a microcosm of heaven and a monument to the divine authority of Justinian’s reign.